OPINION: A law that supports and protects women

In March, we celebrated Women’s History Month and the many accomplishments of women across the board. But as we continue to recognize the remarkable achievements of women, we must also acknowledge the public safety threat that women continue to face in Alaska.

In 2020, more than half of the women surveyed in the Alaska Victimization Survey reported experiencing intimate partner violence, sexual violence or both in their lifetime. Alaska Native women continue to suffer the highest rate of forcible sexual assault and have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than the national average. An investigative report, conducted by Anchorage Daily News in partnership with ProPublica, highlighted that one out of three Native communities in rural Alaska have no local law enforcement presence to try to prevent this violence or ensure justice for survivors.

It is for these reasons I worked so hard with my colleagues, from start to finish, to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

More commonly known as VAWA, we reached bipartisan, bicameral agreement to include our standalone reauthorization in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which funded the federal government for the rest of Fiscal Year 2022 and recently became law. The enactment of our VAWA reauthorization reflects Congress’ renewed commitment to protect women from all forms of violence, while making real, tangible improvements to the original law.

VAWA now includes new tools to help prevent domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, while improving access to essential support services such as health care and safe housing for all victims. Among these are Bree’s Law, our legislation to address teen violence, which is named in honor of Breanna (Bree) Moore, a 20-year-old Alaskan who was murdered by her boyfriend in 2014.

I also coordinated with key Alaska advocates to build on the work of the Alaska Comprehensive Training Forensic Academy, a pilot program run through the University of Alaska Anchorage that is dedicated to ensuring there are health care providers in rural communities who can provide basic medical forensic services to all victims of violence.

As Vice Chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, I worked with Chairman Brian Schatz of Hawaii to author a tribal title for VAWA, which further empowers tribal courts to help combat this major public safety issue.

Our state has a unique and complex jurisdictional landscape as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Because of that legal framework, the last reauthorization of VAWA, in 2013, largely left Alaska tribes out of efforts to address this epidemic. To address that, we included in VAWA a state-specific solution through an Alaska Public Safety Empowerment pilot project, building on the concept championed by the late Congressman Don Young in his longstanding commitment to address violence against Native American women.

The pilot project will supplement the work the State of Alaska is doing with regard to public safety. It does not create Indian Country in Alaska, nor does it take away any jurisdiction from the state.

Instead, the pilot project will empower a limited number of Alaska tribes to exercise special criminal jurisdiction over defendants who commit certain crimes, as outlined in the law, that occur in Native villages in Alaska.

The Department of Justice will ensure tribes selected meet certain criteria, which includes having a tribal justice system that adequately safeguards the rights of all defendants.

Beyond our VAWA reauthorization, Congress took several additional steps through the Consolidated Appropriations Act to improve public safety in Alaska.

We devoted funding to the crisis of missing, murdered and trafficked indigenous women to facilitate cold case investigations, training, and equipment.

Through a new and fully transparent process for Congressionally Directed Spending, I requested and secured funding to support survivors statewide. This includes funding for a Women in Safe Homes (WISH) shelter in Ketchikan, a facility that will be run by the Youth Advocates of Sitka, and the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center in Fairbanks.

I also ensured that no victim service organization in any community, urban or rural, would experience shortfalls in funding by securing $5 million for the Department of Safety’s Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault to distribute statewide.

We must commit to creating a safer future, filled with greater opportunities for all women to succeed, and our recent budget package is a good start.

I’m proud of the significant support we are providing to help prevent violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure that survivors can get the help they need. Together, these important actions will have a positive impact for women in every part of Alaska.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is Alaska’s senior U.S. senator.

By:  Senator Lisa Murkowski
Source: Anchorage Daily News